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The Need for Legal Reform in Jordan. . .and the Need for the International Community to Step Up

I came upon the below (look wa-a-a-a-ay below, 'til you get to Right to Life Is Sacrosanct) opinion piece today and think it represents a good starting place for blogging about why the Jordanian penal code is in dire need of reform, particularly where dishonor killings are concerned, and why the international community needs to step up.

There are three penal code articles on the books that offer such leniency to the perpetrators of these crimes that the murders are considered misdemeanors.  The average sentence is six months (not a typo).  The three offensive penal code articles are Articles 97, 98, and 340.  Article 97 has seldom, if ever, been used in a dishonor killings defense.  Ditto Article 340, though it was the one isolated in a failed late 1999/early 2000 campaign for legal reform.  The king of Jordan, King Abdullah II (eldest son of the late King Hussein bin Talal, husband of Queen Noor al Hussein, nee Lisa Halaby of the United States) and the appointed Senate supported reform; the elected Lower House of Parliament did not.  And so the effort to overturn it failed a number of times.  But just for good measure, the language in Article 340 was altered to make it applicable not only by men, but also by women.  Theoretically, now double the number of people can employ it.  Very, very wrong headed of the leadership and surely a campaign that cruelly backfired on the activists and, more devastatingly, the at-risk people.

Much was made of that effort of almost a decade ago.  Since then, almost nothing has happened on the legal front. . .except making Article 98 an equal opportunity sanctioning of dishonor killings, too.  And this is far more dangerous because this is the penal code article employed in almost all Jordanian dishonor killings defenses.  It offers leniency for crimes committed in a "fit of fury," and it is supposedly roughly comparable to the American temporary insanity defense.  To date, "fit of fury" has been very liberally applied, though, virtually absolving people of any responsibility for their actions, without having to show any burden of proof.  For example, the World Bank looked at every known case of dishonor killing that occurred in Jordan in 1997.  In post-mortem examinations of the bodies, it was found that fully 95% of the girls and women were still virgins at the time of their deaths.  So they were accused and summarily executed, most likely for something they hadn't done.  And their perpetrators probably served, if anything, only a three month to two year sentence. 

This Jordanian columnist writes two things that may not stand out but are, in fact, quite remarkable.  When he writes, "Lenient sentences, no doubt, end up encouraging the continued commission of crimes," he is being quite courageous.  He is a Jordanian man writing this for a Jordanian newspaper, and his opinion runs counter to that offered by senior members of the royal family when they are questioned in the West about dishonor killings.  And, in Jordan, saying or writing anything critical about the royal family or the government are offenses that can be (and are) punishable by fines and imprisonment.  The official line seems to run more along the lines of Queen Rania's YouTube comments from earlier in the week:


"It is horrific. It is inexcusable. And there is absolutely no honour in it," the Queen said in her message, acknowledging that while honour crimes do happen in the region, it is not a widespread occurrence.

"It is not a prevalent cultural practice. It has nothing to do with Islam. It is not at all indicative of the status and standing of women in our culture and it is being challenged," the Queen said.

Her Majesty noted that violence against women "is not exclusive to the Arab world" and is a "worldwide shame."

In other situations, members of the royal family have said that attitudes in Jordan need to change before the laws can change (which, if anyone's read my book, is somewhat absurd, given that an overwhelming majority--89%--of the Jordanians in my representative sample already support overturning the three penal code articles).  I don't think too many right-thinking people in Jordan believe this, as evidenced by comments in the Jordanian blogosphere, which is the closest thing to free speech/press that can be had:


Nas on Dec 3rd, 2005 said:
I do know that the heart of this matter is changing social perceptions and reeducation, but as a Jordanian whose lived and seen I know this is not possible. society overpowers any system which seeks to dominate it. its the reason why kids know smoking is bad for them but do it anyways because its cool. society needs to change within itself and while reeducation is the politically correct way to go human beings do not live this way…human beings have laws forced on them, fear instilled in them, and they adapt and they change and they abandon the ways which are disadvantageous to their existance.


Nas on Jan 9th, 2008 said:
mohammad: i think, as history has proven, laws within a healthy judicial system, have a way of adjusting/fixing social values. 

But back to the queen's comments. . .for the record, most experts believe Jordan has one of the highest, if not the highest, rates of dishonor killings in the world.  So it is a problem, and a relatively widespread one, in Jordan.  Most objective, reasonable people would agree that this tragic state of affairs does say something about the inferior/low status of women in Jordanian society.  It has not been successfully challenged, and there are some very obvious steps that can be (but haven't been) taken to minimize these crimes.  What I find most disturbing is that she speaks as though the situation is entirely out of her hands, when, in fact, she is the wife of the king, an autocratic, absolute ruler who doesn't need anyone's permission to do anything in his country.  Jordan isn't a democracy.  There are no checks and balances, so there is no need to jump through the usual democratic hoops to change laws.  But the queen's audience is Western, and too few Westerners understand these crimes and how things in the region really work.  In other words, she is counting on our ignorance when she makes such incorrect, propagandistic statements. 

The second thing I find remarkable about this column is that the author acknowledges "our human rights treaty obligations."  The last time anyone counted, Jordan was in violation of at least 17 different international agreements and covenants it has signed with the international community. . .just on dishonor killings alone.  Quite a few of them are U.N. agreements and covenants.  I am not aware of any consequence for this.  Apparently, one can just sign these contracts and continue doing whatever the heck one wants.  Well, I don't think this is fair.  I don't think it's OK.  I don't think the international community should be settling for this shoddy "partnership."  Why aren't we expecting and demanding more?  The West provides Jordan with a disproportionately huge amount of aid, without which Jordan and its monarchy probably couldn't survive.  Why aren't we tying a significant portion of that aid to material, measurable, sustained improvements in basic human rights?  To the extent that we don't, we are somewhat complicit in these crimes.

If one looks at the Jordanian blogosphere, there is evidence that Jordanians, too, would like us to step in and assert ourselves:


Hamzeh N. on Apr 10th, 2007 said:
I think it’s very important that those who learn about Jordan’s culture also learn about the negative norms of it, and more importantly learn about the rising voices that speak against these negative norms. This way maybe we’ll end up with some external pressure on our government to abolish the laws regarding honor crimes.

Coz so far, I think external pressure on Jordan has been one of the most successful (if not the most successful) instruments in changing laws and policies in our country.

Nas on Apr 10th, 2007 said:
hamzeh: i couldn’t agree more

And in another discussion, about the irony of having severe penalties for criticizing the regime but treating dishonor killings as though they are of little consequence:


Jordanian on Mar 12th, 2008 said:
I don’t understand how a person so highly educated, so modern and supposedly open-minded like our king can sit well on the throne with such laws in effect in his country. He has the power to remove such laws, but he doesn’t, and that is a great disapointment.

I think by allowing such things to take place, though a leader in his position wins some extra amount of power, he loses a little bit of something else: respect. 

Now, what do you think of a country the leaders of which choose power over respect in some cases (I’m not saying all)?

And, yes, these bloggers are aware of the risks they are taking by posting comments that are critical of the regime, so one can only imagine what they'd write if only they were free to do so:


Khalaf on Apr 17th, 2008 said:
Mitch, we have laws in Jordan that prevent us fron saying anything negative about the royal family. Don’t expect any harsh critiques here.


Right to Life Is Sacrosanct
By Walid M. Sadi
April 20, 2008

Many Jordanians rejoiced, temporarily, when the criminal law on the so-called honour crimes was amended, offering women equal treatment with men by granting them relative impunity if they kill or injure husbands caught in an illicit sexual relation.

Before it was amended, Article 98 of the criminal code granted only men various degrees of impunity, including complete impunity when killing wives or female members of their families caught involved in extramarital relations or even appearing to be doing so.

When the country went up in arms against the legal justification for this, Parliament dropped the full impunity clause and retained the extenuating circumstances element in the commission of such crimes, and extended it to women as well, who could kill or injure in the name of honour as well.

This equal gender treatment is not absolute though, as women can only enjoy the same right “to kill or injure” as long as the illicit act of their husbands is committed in the family home. Otherwise, if the husband has an extramarital relation outside his home, the wife has no right to even touch him.

Men, however, have no such restriction and may kill or injure a female member of the family engaged or suspected of engaging in an illicit sexual act anywhere.

Fortunately so far only a handful of women made use of this “privilege”, of this licence to kill or injure their spouses. The same cannot be said about men who continue to murder in the name of “honour” and receive reduced punishments for their crimes!

This gender differential treatment, however, is not quite the main issue. The issue is rather whether the law should offer any degree of impunity to people who kill others in the name of “honour crime”.

Since men continue to exploit the existing criminal code, Jordanians, especially women, have the right to ask whether there is really any justification for this licence to kill or for commuting male murderers’ sentences.

Islam is quite explicit in this regard, as it requires solid evidence, corroborated by four male witnesses, before a woman can be punished for an illicit sexual act. Since this degree of evidence cannot be attained, no court can lawfully condemn a woman for allegedly committing the sin of all sins! If a court cannot pass a judgement of guilt on a woman accused of illicit sexual relations, how can a husband, a brother or an uncle make this determination on his own and get away with it?

There are many sane options available to both sexes in dealing with sexual infidelity, including divorce or separation.

The “fit of fury” often cited by courts to commute sentences on culprits who commit their crimes allegedly in such a state of mind should not be allowed to serve as an excuse for the kind of light sentences rendered against perpetrators of honour crimes.

The right to life is paramount and should not be violated. Lenient sentences, no doubt, end up encouraging the continued commission of crimes.

True, the independence of the judiciary is sacrosanct, but the right to be critical of court decisions that appear to be flawed should not be sacrificed or given up so easily. The existing law is discriminatory against women because it gives men preferential treatment. The application of the law is also flawed because it does not accord the right to life enough respect and protection.

There is no easy remedy for this legal situation, but a start can be made by removing the obvious gender discrimination against women, deeply embodied in the criminal legislation. The second corrective measure can be achieved by eliminating altogether the existing licence for both sexes to commit crime in the name of honour. The fit of fury argument should be conservatively applied.

Attention to our human rights treaty obligations, especially the right to life, should be given priority over all other considerations.  

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The regime is above all

The regime is above all interested in remaining in power. Everything else is secondary. It will not change these laws on its own, and the current generation of Jordanian activists in general spends its time promoting their own careers and benefitting from the way things are. They are counting on the rest of the world not noticing.

The young bloggers are correct. It will take a new generation of more motivated activists with fresher ideas and/or international pressure to set things right.

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I noticed when I was living

I noticed when I was living in Jordan that an awful lot of people there appeared to be coopted by the regime (and not in a good way).  And so you'd see people in positions that should've involved a relatively high degree of autonomy and power, charged with doing presumably important things, diddling on the fringes but thoroughly enjoying the perks of their supposed power.  It reminded me of that childhood tale about the emperor's new clothes.

As my book was being published, a lot of the expatriate embassy people living and working in Jordan were keen to speak with me, sometimes officially, often off the record.  Most of them had no faith in government statistics and reports and little confidence in the work of some of the human rights NGOs in the country.  They believed much of it was either spun or complete fiction or performed by people who either weren't qualified or weren't sufficiently motivated to do a good job.  So they were happy to come across an independent and qualified researcher and to grill me on what is really going on with dishonor killings in Jordan.  Most of them asked me why the majority of the human rights activists in Jordan were so complacent.  They acknowledged the vast cultural differences in work ethics, but wondered aloud, even so, shouldn't more be happening? 

There was a consensus among these folks that the customary way of dealing with thinking people who aren't likely to stand up too much to the regime is to coopt them.  The real trouble makers go to prison and/or are hauled off and given an attitude adjustment; the others are bought off through the complex system of wasta (cronyism), kickbacks, and bribes.  And, after a while, they don't even realize they've sold their souls.  Or maybe they even like it.

For those of us from cultures that value freedom, independent and critical thought, standing up for what is just, a closer correlation between words and deeds, and retaining more of one's soul, it is a jarring thing to experience.